Building support for Migrant Workers

I’m attending a conference today organized by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) here in London. There seems to be some kind of wireless Internet connection, so if I can, I will blog throughout the day as the conference goes along.

13:15 That’s it — lunch break. I’m done here for the day …
13:02 Bridget Anderson from Kalayaan has begun speaking. Kalayaan supports self-organized groups of migrant domestic workers (in private households), and has been at this since 1987, and works closely with the T&G union.
12:44 Robert Szewczyk from NSZZ Solidarnosc has begun to speak. He points out that this is the greatest economic migration in Polish history, especially since the Polish accession to the EU. Officially, 700,000 Poles have migrated looking for better paid work — perhaps more. There have been some claims that as many as 2 million Poles have migrated but this is certainly not the case.
Polish unemployment has fallen by 3%, around 15.3%, now below 15% — due to the 700,000 who have left the country.
A typical migrant is young — under 30 years old. They will have a modest command of English. Few intend to stay very long abroad. They came here for cash, to tell the truth.
Of EU countries, only Ireland, the UK and Sweden opened their labour markets instantly to the Poles — they and the 10 new members. In 2006, other countries opened up their labour markets as well, including non-EU states such as Norway. Other EU countries, such as Germany, maintain transition periods.
This wave of migration consists almost entirely of workers who fill a gap in the economy; very few become outcasts or homeless. Those countries which accepted migrant workers have seen their economies grow quickly. The main areas of employment include construction, agriculture, transport, health care, hotels, trade, and food processing. A classic brain drain is taking place in Poland.
There are many cases of abuse of Polish workers in western Europe — labour camps run by organized crime in Italy; non payment of wages in Spain; unequal treatment at an EDF plant and the same in Sweden. Further abuses included withholding of passports, lower than minimum wage paid, poor health and safety conditions, and deductions of living costs from wages.
Why don’t they join unions? (Slide went by too fast … not getting all of us …) He is listing 8 or 9 reasons. Unions haven’t approached workers. Workers don’t know their rights. They fear being sacked. They think unions represent only indigenous workers.
Conferences such as this are quite common, but this is the first one in the UK he has attended. This is not the action itself, which we need. Gave examples of successful, concrete projects — GMB employed Polish and Lithuanian full time organizers, Usdaw did a brochure in Polish, SIPTU in Ireland appointed Polish organizers — this was more important than the agreement signed between Solidarnosc and the union.
Further expansion of the EU (Bulgaria and Romania) will make things more complex and difficult.
12:30 Frances O’Grady, TUC deputy general secretary, is now speaking in the plenary. No need to summarize this here, because it’s already been posted to the web (see below).
12:25 Workshop summary:
The room was packed – about 30 people in my workshop, which was one of four taking place simulatenously. But unfortunately, there was no connection to a wireless network. I am the only person in the room using a laptop.
Participants introduced themselves — several in halting English, representatives of several migrant workers’ communities, and trade unionists.
Discussion focussed on what people were actually doing — from all over the UK.
One spoke about a project in Canary Wharf, London which has led to some migrant workers becoming union reps (shop stewards) and even learning reps.
The head of the GLA suggested that people make use of their publications in all major European languages telling workers their rights. He also pointed out that workers who were being exploited could call up Crime Stoppers, where an interpreter would be made available — and could report violations anonymously. Right now, they only focus on agriculture and food processing, but the role might be expanded. Later he explained that agencies (gangmasters) are actually quite vulnerable — they can lose their licenses, or if they have no license, they can be locked up. But he emphasized that workers need not put themselves at risk, and should be able to report violations anonymously.
A T&G member spoke about organizing Polish workers — many of whom come over with no trade union background. The union has brought over representatives of NSZZ Solidarnosc (do that not know that there is more than one national trade union center in Poland?)
From Plymouth, we heard about a European Social Fund project originally designed to aid refugees, but now devoting 2/3 of its time to migrant workers — working closely with the TUC and the Citizens Advice Bureau. She later explained that there are very few resources for migrant workers, and far more resources for refugees.
It was reported that in January, the government is due to send out a leaflet to 500,000 employers explaining to them the issues around regularizing foreign workers. Employers will be urged to call up a dedicated phone line to report workers that may not be properly documented.
A PCS official spoke about the problem of enforcing such things as minimum wage when the number of civil servants is being cut, and urged people to support a January 20th demonstration against those cuts.
A person from a CAB in the Scottish Highlands spoke about the lack of unions in her area, and the role played by groups like the CAB filling their role. She emphasized that the issue is not only low pay, but long hours.
From Cumbria a woman spoke about a drop-in center for migrant workers — a center specifically designed to remove barriers, and to offer individual advice.
The possibility of a day of action in support of migrant workers was suggested, mentioning the success of the May 1 day of action in the USA last year which drew three million people into the streets.
Speakers spoke about different ways of using media to reach out to migrant workers — including newspapers in their language, local radio stations, and even comic books.
A women from a Polish center in Southhampton spoke about the dozens of workers who come in every day with questions, facing language problems. They have organized classes for adults and for children, and even football teams for Polish migrant workers.
11:05 Now we move over to workshops …
11:02 His current slide talks about discussion forums, wikis and blogs. (Wikis and blogs?!?) This apparently part of their training. Talks about the need for ‘lateral thinking’.
11:01 Ian Moss from the Citizens Advice Bureau, begins speaking. He shows how his organization uses machine translation (MT) – Babelfish – to help migrant workers. He shows examples of leaflets from local CABs in different languages. He is, unfortunately, speaking in a monotone, showing slides full of text, and talking to the screen rather than the audience, so we’re not hearing everything he’s saying. He’s showing a slide now which he thinks is Polish, but from the audience, people call out that it’s in Russian. (I can’t read the slide myself from here.)
10:50 Robson speaks about migrant workers using the net — library access. Recommends the website
10:43 Robson speaks about the problems facing migrant workers — and highlights translation and interpretation as central.
10:38 Reverend Canon Alan Robson, from Integration Lincolshire, speaks.
10:35 Dromey emphasizes the role of churches, mosques and synagogues in those coalitions. Migrant workers have many issues outside the world of work, such as housing. Employers must stop exploiting vulnerable migrant workers. Responsibility falls on employers, clients and government. The government must change its tone on migration. We must not bracket migration with crime and security. As for government’s responsibility — calls for organization, regulation and regularization (noting that this is not exactly a catchy phrase). It is impractical and immoral to deport hundreds of thousands of workers. Calls for an amnesty for 500,000 of them. Ends.
10:30 Dromey continues. We have to move beyond simply passing resolutions. What do we do in practical terms? The T&G has included this in their organizing agenda – starting with organizing cleaners here in London. At campaign start, cleaners were paid minimum wage. An army of cleaners is now on the march. Two historic agreements have been signed in the last two weeks, covering thousands of workers, recognizing the T&G and moving towards the living wage. This morning, he saw hundreds more protestors moving out. A second example is in the meat industry, particularly poulty. In 2007, we will see the end of the two-tier labour market in this industry. Third example: migrant workers, strawberry pickers at S&A, previously forced to sleep in the woods, paying to call for ambulances, paid almost nothing. T&G began picketing supermarkets, and got results. The biggest breakthrough for organizing agricultural workers in a generation. T&G now has 70 organizers — one third of them from ethnic minority backgrounds, one third are women. Building coalitions of support is crucial.
10:20 Dromey says that in one sense, nothing is new. His father came here in the 1930s from Ireland, and was embraced by the trade union movement. But what we now see is very different. The scale of migration is greater than ever before. How do we respond to that? Notes that many of the migrant workers today are overqualified, which explains some of their anger at being treated like serfs. Mentions the T&G’s Justice for Cleaners campaign.
10:14 Tudor says that the issue is how do we support migrant workers, and notes that many of those present are from community organizations and not only trade unions. He finishes quickly and introduces Jack Dromey of the T&G — who he calls an ‘iconic’ figure in the British trade union movement.
10:11 OK, now we begin. Owen Tudor is speaking.
10:07 While we’re waiting, you can already read what one of the speakers is going to say.
10:00 Conference start is being delayed. The London Underground, amazingly, is running late and many people have yet to arrive, apparently. The room seems quite full.
9:30 Arrive. People begin registering. The TUC is expecting around 100 people — so I have prepared 100 flyers about LabourStart’s new edition in Polish to be distributed to them. The list of conference participants shows people here from Amicus, Community, CWU, GFTU, GMB, NUJ, PCS, T&G, TSSA, UCU, Unison, and Usdaw — with the largest delegations from Unison, the T&G and the GMB. The plenary session opens shortly with Owen Tudor, head of the TUC’s European Union & International Relations Department speaking first, followed by Jack Dromey, the deputy general secretary of the T&G.

1 Comment on "Building support for Migrant Workers"

  1. Hi Eric,
    thanks for this – good to hear more about the conference.
    Union liveblogging is still somewhat rare! Even rarer though to have two bloggers in one union conference ( – let’s hope it’s the first of many.

Comments are closed.